Bioneering a Sustainable Sea Change with Ocean Farmer Bren Smith

September 30, 2016

Seafood is in crisis, with overfishing devastating our oceans, and aquaculture spreading pollution and disease. But East Coast commercial-fisherman-turned-sustainable-seafood-visionary Bren Smith is working on a better way.

Last year, he won the $100,000 Buckminster Fuller Prize for a simple and regenerative model of growing seaweed and shellfish he pioneered on his Thimble Island Ocean Farm. His “3D ocean farming” not only aims to provide healthy food for local communities, but also to create new jobs, mitigate climate change, and restore decimated fish stocks and underwater ecosystems. He founded the nonprofit GreenWave to train other ocean farmers for the blue-green economy.

On October 21-23, he’ll be visiting the Bay Area to speak at the Bioneers Conference, a national summit for the sustainability movement. We talked with Bren to learn more about his revolutionary method of ocean farming.

CUESA: Can tell us about your path as a fisherman to developing GreenWave?

Bren Smith: I was born and raised in a little fishing village in Newfoundland, Canada. When I was 14 years old, I dropped out of high school and headed out to sea. I fished all over the globe, then in the 80s, the fish stocks crashed in Newfoundland, and that was a real wake-up call for a whole generation of us. We didn’t know it then, but we were pillaging the seas. I loved my job. It was so wonderful being a fisherman and helping feed the country, but it was the height of industrialization of our food system.

I went on a search for sustainability. I tried aquaculture on salmon farms, but that got me pretty disillusioned because of everything we know about industrial aquaculture now, the things that make it the worst brand name in the grocery store, like the use of antibiotics and the pollution of local waterways. So I kept searching for what sustainability meant to me. How do I spend my life working on the ocean? How do I die on my boat one day? To do that, I need to be not just a steward for the ocean. In the era of climate change, we have to go beyond sustainability and actually work to restore our oceans and our ecosystems. We’re facing a situation where one out of every four marine species is threatened with extinction, and at the same time our food system is being pushed out to sea. The journey had me trying to create a new kind of ocean farming that restores rather than depletes. I did that down here in Long Island Sound, and once I developed the farming method, I then developed GreenWave.

What does the GreenWave method of farming actually look like?

To imagine the farm, imagine an underwater garden. It’s sort of a scaffolding system of ropes. We have hurricane-proof anchors along the edge, and about six to eight feet below the surface, we have these horizontal ropes. And that’s it. From there the question is, what are all the ways we can use that scaffolding to grow different species? Our kelp grows vertically down the water column from the ropes. And we have our scallops and our mussels using that same gear in lantern nets, and mussel socks hanging on those same lines. Then on the bottom we have our clams embedded in the mud and oyster cages. Because we’re vertical, I can grow way more food than I ever use to before. We’re able to do 10-20 tons of seaweed and 250,000 shellfish per acre, which is extremely productive. If we were to make a network of ocean farms the size of Washington State, we could actually technically feed the world. This isn’t bearded Brooklyn boutique food!

And because we don’t have to fight gravity underwater, it is really cheap to build. Anybody with 20 acres and a boat and $20,000 can start their own farm. People are able to get up and start farming in their first year when they go through the GreenWave training program.

How many farms are you working with so far?

We’re just in our first year, and we now have 20 farms in different stages of development. We’re expecting in three years to have a “GreenWave reef” of 25 to 50 farms dotting the coastline. And a seafood hub, which we have, and hatcheries, which we have, and then a ring of institutional buyers, which are great stable markets for our farmers’ crops, and then a ring of entrepreneurs doing value-added products. We want to replicate that GreenWave reef up and down our coasts, and that’s how you get what I call a “Napa Valley of merroir.”

Are you working with any farmers on the West Coast yet?

We have our first farm just going through its permitting stages in Santa Barbara. The West Coast is complicated regulatory-wise. We’re able to replicate the farms really fast on the East Coast, but we’re going to go into California very gently and carefully. For hundreds of years on the East Coast, we’ve had shellfishing in particular, plus we’ve always farmed those grounds, so the regulatory environment is sort of set up here. You’ve got some great oystering going on in California, but not that long tradition. The idea is new for California.

How have you been developing the market for these products?

When I started, lots of food was coming off my farm. I thought, “How am I going to sell this weird disgusting stuff called seaweed?” I thought that was going to take 10 years. It’s been the exact opposite. There is an existing seaweed market that’s about $7 billion, and it’s mostly supplied by Asia. Seaweed buyers are all clamoring for locally grown seafood. I hadn’t expected that. Second, people are searching around for new and delicious food. We grow sugar kelp particularly—it’s not the kelp that you think of, the big rubbery stuff. It’s sort of fine, it has this slight sweet, slight saltiness to it. One of our main products is kelp noodles, which are all kelp, long 15-foot noodles. It turns bright green when you cook it, so the aesthetic is really nice. We just had Rene Redzepi, David Chang, and others on the boat and they did a tasting. My wife cooked for them, and it was the most nerve-wracking moment of her life. But they loved it.

What are some of the benefits and byproducts of this farming system?

The key is that we design for low aesthetic impact. Because the farm is underwater and because of the way it’s structured, anybody can boat, swim, or fish above the farm. We aren’t what you think. We’re actually protecting the common rather than privatizing it, and we’re rebuilding the reef system, so people actually come and swim in our kelp forests and through our lantern nets. It’s the most productive ecosystem in the region now. As our coral reefs are destroyed, as our oyster reefs disappear up and down our coasts, we’re the engines keeping that ecosystem functioning.

The shellfish we grow for diversity, because it reduces risk to the farmer and it just provides great food. But we see seaweed really as the game changer because it’s one of the fastest growing plants on earth. The environmental benefits of kelp are incredible. It’s called the sequoia of the sea. The New Yorker recently called it the culinary equivalent of the electric car. It’s beautiful! It sequesters carbon and nitrogen, and we’re also working with the Department of Energy biofuel program. We have a new program to use it as animal feed, so kelp-fed beef and chicken may be available in the future. It turns out cattle have been fed kelp for generations, but that tradition was lost. Kelp creates delicious, umami-filled beef, but also you get a major reduction, 70-90% the studies show, in methane output from the cows. It actually changes their stomach. Kelp requires fewer inputs than corn or soy, and then it has all these uses: fertilizers, feeds, biofuels. You get five times more ethanol per acre out of kelp than you do from corn.

Why is this work so important for our food economy?

We need jobs. There are certain professions: farmers, coal workers, fishermen, steel workers. People who help feed, power, and build the country. We need to give them jobs that you can still sing songs about. We all deserve and want jobs that retain that meaning. A lot of times the cultural piece gets lost, but if we want to shift the politics and bring everyone—whether they’re coal workers or fishermen—along with us in building a new sustainable world, we have to build something that gets people up in the morning. That is doing good, and growing good food.

Bren Smith will be speaking at the Bioneers Conference on October 21-23 in San Rafael. Receive $25 off a three-day pass with code FRIENDSOFCUESA.

Photo from GreenWave.